Starting the Process
For some Penn medical students who did research extensively as undergraduates, finding the right mentor and project may be relatively easy. Others may be less sure of how to get started. Below are some suggestions to make things easier.
Start planning early! If you are planning for a research experience, you should be considering what type of research you would like to do and exploring opportunities for funding by mid-fall. By the end of December, you should be finalizing your plans. Many funding opportunities have January through March deadlines. If you wait until late in the spring to decide what to do, you may miss out on the chance to be funded.
If you are considering a year out of research, you may want to contact Helene Weinberg (Registrar) well in advance to discuss planning electives, sub-Is, etc..
Think about where you want to conduct your research project:
- Penn - most students conduct research at Penn.
- Outside Penn (Domestic) - there are opportunities for doing research through institutions other than Penn. Going offsite can limit your funding options. Early planning is essential to ensure that you are able to coordinate a project, secure a mentor, and confirm that your timeline does not interfere with your responsibilities at Penn. You may want to search the websites of Medical Schools in that location to see if they offer any funding opportunities in addition to this website.
- International - there are opportunities for international research at Penn. Interested students should contact Megan Doherty, Director of The Center for Global Health. For more information, visit The Center for Global Health.
TYPE AND FIELD OF RESEARCH
What type(s) of research are you interested in conducting? e.g. Basic science, Clinical, Translational, Health Policy, etc.
What field(s) of research are you interested in? e.g. Dermatology, Radiology, Pediatrics, etc. Extensive research programs are underway in every department of the Medical School and in every major scientific discipline. There are a variety of websites that provide a good starting place to explore available options:
- Biomedical Graduate Studies - has links to the Graduate Groups in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Cell and Molecular Biology, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Genomics and Computational Biology, Immunology, Neuroscience, and Pharmacological Sciences. Within each program's website is a listing of faculty research.
- Penn Centers and Institutes - some individual Centers and Institutes maintain lists of faculty researchers.
- Departments in the Perelman School of Medicine - some departments list faculty researchers on their websites.
FINDING A MENTOR
Finding a Potential Mentor
When you have narrowed your interests down to one or more fields, you can seek advice on things to keep in mind when choosing a mentor, and also ask for suggestions on which labs would be good for you. Consider reaching out to:
- Course directors and lecturers, if their expertise is in one of your fields of interest.
- Department Chairs or Division Chiefs, Directors of Centers or Institutes, and Graduate Group Chairs or track chairs. (The people in this last group steward PhD students, and have a wealth of information on faculty members who are most active in training students.) Some of these folks are extremely busy, and you may have to be persistent. Don't give up after one e-mail if you don't hear from someone! There is no substitute for the advice of faculty members. (But do give up if you try several times and get nowhere. In that case, contact other people instead.)
- Other helpful folks:
- Dr. Skip Brass, Associate Dean and Director of the Combined Degree & Physician Scholar Programs (CDPS)
- Dr. Horace Delisser, Program Director of our NHLBI grant for underrepresented minority students
- Dr. John Farrar, a faculty member at Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Program Director for the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Summer Fellowship
- Amy Nothelfer, Associate Director, Combined Degree & Physician Scholar Programs
- Fellow students. First years with extensive research experience and/or more senior students who have already been through this process may be helpful. You can learn more about other students' research experiences on the Student Portal/Educational Opportunities under "Summer First Year - Guide to Planning". Click on the "Student Experiences" links.
- Search for potential mentors on PSOM "Our Faculty" using keywords to identify faculty conducting research on a particular topic (e.g. Parkinson's Disease)
- Short Term, Year Out, Underrepresented Minority Student, Global Health research opportunities. If you have no idea what you would like to do, these websites are a good place to start. They include information about a variety of funding options as well as their primary faculty contacts, who might be able to assist you with identifying potential mentors in that field.
- Underrepresented Minority Students are encouraged to look through the "Faculty Advising" section of the PSOM Diversity & Inclusion Office's Student Life & Diversity Guide for the 1st Year. This section features information on selected faculty from the various clinical departments in the School of Medicine that students can contact to learn about a specialty and/or area practice, as well as obtain information on potential mentoring and/or research opportunities.
Contacting a Potential Mentor
Once you have a list of particular mentors that you are interested in, contact them directly, perhaps by e-mail. Tell them about your enthusiasm for their research and ask if they would be interested in having a medical student in the lab for two months during the summer or for a year out. If so, request a chance to meet with them to discuss possible projects. If not, perhaps ask if there are others they would recommend.
When you meet with a faculty member to discuss possible summer projects, explore whether he or she would be a good mentor for you. For summer research, two months is a very short amount of time for doing research, and it will be important that you have a concrete project planned if you are to have an interesting, productive summer. For all research projects, talk with the faculty member about how you would develop the project and plan the research if you end up working in that lab. You need to find a mentor who is a good fit for you:
- How much guidance will he or she provide?
- Is he or she fairly available?
- Are there other people (grad students or postdocs/fellows) who can also help you?
You definitely want to work with someone responsive and available, who is clearly committed to helping you learn about the scientific process. Avoid mentors who wouldn't have the time to help you learn, or who seem to have too definite an idea of exactly what you would do, thus cutting you out of the process of designing and developing the plan. Ask potential mentors if they will be on campus and available during your research period: don't choose someone who will be traveling extensively while you are working on your project.
Once you have chosen a mentor, set up a schedule of periodic meetings to develop the project, get pointers on appropriate background reading, and perhaps to spend some time learning techniques.
There's an incredible network of people who can help you, but you need to be proactive and thorough to take advantage of it.
Go to the "Funding for Research" section at Applying for Programs/Funding.
Go to Guidance to see the varied resources available to Penn medical students.